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Henry Merckel Ė Celebrated Historical Recordings: 1930-35
Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, op.61 (1880) (rec. 27 June 1935) [25:19]
Danse Macabre, op.49 (1875) (rec. 4 April 1930) [7:00]*
Edouard LALO (1823-1892)
Symphonie Espagnole, op.21 (1873) (rec. 15/16 February, 1932) [31:33]
Concerto Russe:  Intermezzo (1879) (rec. 27 June, 1935) [4:26]
Henry Merckel (violin)
LíOrchestre des Concert Pasdeloup/Piero Coppola
Orchestra/Philippe Gaubert *
MUSIC & ARTS CD1178 [66.17]



During the course of my review of Malibranís first volume of their LíEcole Franco-Belge de Violon I wondered aloud that it mightnít have been better to have substituted Merckelís Symphonie espagnole for Lola Bobescoís, attractive though that was (see review). That would have made for a well-deserved, previously un-reissued all-Merckel disc. Two years later my hopes have been realised by Music & Arts.†
 
Henry Merckel - Iíve seen both Henry and Henri given as first names in French and English language sources, though on my 78s itís Henry and Henry that is surely the correct usage - was a distinguished player, born in Paris in 1897. Like many another elite violinist he became concertmaster whilst also managing to pursue a necessarily limited career as a soloist. He led the Paris Opera Orchestra for nearly forty years and was successively concertmaster of the orchestras of the Concerts Straram and the Sociťtť des Concerts du Conservatoire. He was leading the last named when he made the recordings enshrined in this disc.
 
His Symphonie espagnole was the first on disc to contain the Intermezzo; an earlier recording with Ysaˇe pupil Leo Strockoff - who always claimed to have recorded it complete with Hamilton Harty - was issued without it whilst Menuhinís recording came slightly later. Merckelís playing is a roll-call of Gallic sensibility. The lexicon of piquant colouristic devices and ear-titillating slides is bewitching. Above all Merckel characterises with great individuality and depth; thereís a rather feminine cast to this kind of playing, a pliant, small-toned but incessantly varied palette that keeps one intoxicated. Of Merckelís French colleagues the older Thibaud, in his two live recordings Ė the 1941 Ansermet on APR is the better known but thereís a later German broadcast on Tahra Ė possesses a greater oratorical breadth, whilst the very slightly younger Francescatti (Cluytens, 1946) is cleaner, clearer - and whilst still distinctly Gallic - that much more masculine and cosmopolitan.
 
The suggestive liquidity of Merckelís playing is best savoured in the Scherzando, a bewitching display of sweet and tightly toned brilliance, flecked with rapid portamenti, neither as sensuously inward as Thibaud nor as elevated as Francescatti. In the Andante he takes a tempo equidistant between both his august French peers and presents a beautifully vocalised lament, his timbral shading never veering toward over-vibration. His trills in the finale are deliciously quick though not quite of optimum electric velocity; elsewhere he exemplifies French style in all he does, arguably even more so than Thibaud, though no one ever possessed Thibaudís sensual tonal reserves.
 
The Saint-SaŽns Concerto was recorded three years later. Once again we find expected divergences in approach. Merckel employs elfin, highly expressive, and perfumed tonal resources. Francescatti is more direct and assertive with a broader tone. There may be hearers who might occasionally tire of Merckelís incessant colour Ė too much ďbusinessĒ Ė but not, I think, of the first movementís fluid portamenti or the floated sound. The slow movement is pure avian songfulness, the finale verdant, aerial and athletic. Merckel proves a master of rhythmic incision, witty characterisation, as well as flexible and wonderful bowing.†
 
There are two other valuable additions. Laloís Intermezzo from his Concerto Russe was recorded at the same time as the Saint-SaŽns and we savour Merckelís pirouetting over the orchestra and exploring some of the more deliciously schmaltzy areas of the movement. Then thereís the vibrant and evergreen Danse Macabre, which is relished with unselfconscious brio and no little charm. Incidentally though this is credited in the booklet documentation to the Concert Pasdeloup and Piero Coppola I was always under the impression that this was actually an unidentified band directed by Philippe Gaubert.
 
A similar programme was issued on the Japanese label Opus Kura Ė minus the Concerto Russe Intermezzo Ė but this was very hard to track down and Iíve not encountered a copy. Music & Arts have used good originals and judiciously transferred them to fine effect. Their notes are cogent and biographically helpful.
 
This is a truly delicious disc, and the coterie of Merckel admirers can here savour his very special musicianship in works entirely congenial to him.
 
Jonathan Woolf
 

 

 

 

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